Following weeks of tension, the situation in East Jerusalem escalated as several Palestinian families risked being evicted from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police forces later broke out in the religious compound around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Over the past days, Hamas has fired rockets at several towns in Israel in retaliation for the clashes in Jerusalem. In response, Israel has carried out multiple air raids and attacks through its ground forces in Gaza. As the death toll soars, the ongoing escalation accounts for the most violent episode between Israel and Hamas in years. As the international community calls for both sides to de-escalate, the prospects do not look positive. Such outbursts of violence will undoubtedly have a crucial regional impact, especially in light of the recently concluded Abraham Accords.
The so-called Abraham Accords is a U.S.-brokered agreement to normalize diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries. In the past few months, Israel reached deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco as part of the accords. Even though the accords were concluded under the sponsorship of the former Trump administration, the new US president Joe Biden has indicated he would continue with the pursuit of such accords with further countries. Recently it has been reported that covert meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince bin Salman have taken place. Without a doubt, the Abraham Accords were the most significant and positive breakthrough in the intractable confrontation between Israel and the Arab/Muslim world that magnified the scope for compromise between the two fronts.
Nevertheless, such normalization has been viewed as a betrayal on the Palestinian side that has denounced the agreements affirming that a long-lasting peace is impossible as long as the rights of the Palestinian people are not recognized and upheld. Indeed, the monarchs had opted to dispense with nearly two decades of Pan-Arab consensus on Israel by normalizing ties before a meaningful conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reached. Their decision reflected real political exhaustion with the Palestinian cause on some political elites in Arab countries, who are more concerned about the new challenges posed by the Iranian regime or political Islamists than the old struggle of the Palestinians. However, the current communal violence and the escalating situation could waylay any hopes of putting the Middle East on the back burner. Indeed, the Abraham Accords gave Israel “the false impression that they don’t need to come to terms with the Palestinians, that if they’re able to forge these agreements with the Arab world, then it’s irrelevant. That argument has been proved dead wrong by these clashes,” said Marwan Al Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan, now vice-president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “There are strong fundamentals to these relationships, but the challenge is how Arab countries will explain the issue to their people,” said Ofir Winter, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “This escalation is a big test for these new relations.”
When entering the Abraham Accords last year, Gulf officials had argued that new diplomatic relationships would give their countries more leverage to convince Israel to change its policies toward Palestinians. However, with the latest violence, diplomats who have followed the events closely say the UAE is beginning to grasp the limits of any leverage the deal offers in a decades-old struggle seen as existential by both Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, the accords have undercut Palestinians’ traditional supporters and empowered Israel, which has capitalized in recent months on a policy that appears to persist under the Biden administration of not imposing pressure on the Jewish state. In the meanwhile, protests and manifestation in solidarity of the Palestinians have erupted all across the Middle East, showing the enduring appeal of the Palestinian cause, which has a central place in contemporary Arab identity politics and ultimately put the governments that are part of the accords in a difficult and defensive position. As the fighting threatens to escalate into all-out war, pressure is rising on Arab governments to take a stand. So far, the uptick in violence has had little immediate diplomatic fallout. Along with the rest of the Arab world and Muslim majority nations such as Turkey and Iran, Saudi Arabia and all five other Arabian Peninsula nations have condemned Israeli actions. Even though there is very little possibility that Arab states would break off or downgrade ties with Israel over the ongoing conflict, the escalation will likely complicate budding ties between pro-American Gulf monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel, potentially any damaging attempts to bring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman or any other Arab states into a peace with Israel.
Finally, it has transpired that the Abraham Accords, which were presented as instrumental in bringing peace to the Middle East, did not fulfil their promise. On the contrary, the current escalations has uncovered their fundamental weakness: albeit presented as instrumental for acquiring leverage vis-à-vis Israel, they actually led to the erasure of the “land for peace” principle. Moreover, such normalization agreements were embedded in the specific close relationship between formed president Donald Trump and Netanyahu. Now, with Trump gone and Netanyahu only barely clinging to power, regional politics may already be pivoting away from the Abraham Accords.
The Editor: Raffaella Colletti
Raffaella Colletti is an MA student in Middle Eastern studies at SOAS. She holds an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science. She gained professional experience in research, risk assessment, and political analysis in international environments including Europol and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Her main research interests lie at the nexus of security/conflict issues and human rights with a specific focus on the Middle East area.